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Atheists’ Billboards in NJ, NY, Pennsylvania Stir Debate

Carolyn Weaver

The message, in English and Arabic, is blunt. “You know it’s a myth. You have a choice,” declares the billboard in a Muslim community in Paterson, New Jersey. An identical one, with a Hebrew translation, was erected in Brooklyn, New York. Both were installed by American Atheists, a private organization with 4,000 members, to publicize its upcoming national convention in Washington.

David Silverman, president of the group, said the billboards are meant to reach secret nonbelievers in Muslim and conservative Jewish communities. He said those communities repress the nonbelievers among them.

“These billboards are here to tell them they are not alone,” he said in Paterson, New Jersey, recently. “To give the message that people do have a choice, that even if their friends and family are all of the same religious beliefs, and are all part of their insular communities, they still have a choice. There’s nothing forcing them to live the life of a lie.”

Silverman calls atheists the “most hated minority” in America. He debated the point on the street with Mohammed Qatanani, the Imam of a nearby mosque, the Islamic Center of Passaic County.

“I think it is a kind of not-acceptance, a kind of converting people,” the Imam said. “You want to convert people that God is a myth, but God is not a myth.”

Silverman said that was not the case. “I don’t think I’m trying to convert anybody,” he said. “I’m trying to talk to people who already know it’s a myth. I’m not going to convert anybody with a billboard. Does this billboard shake your faith?"

Imam Qatanani said that there is no compulsion in Islam, that it can only be freely chosen. He said that many Muslim scholars now believe that punishment for Muslims who leave the religion cannot be justified, and that there is no such requirement in the Quran.

The billboard in New York was originally set to be installed atop a building in a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood. But local residents objected, and the sign was moved to an expressway, where it is mainly visible to people in passing cars.

In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a heavily Christian community, a different billboard caused an outcry, with its graphic image of a black man in chains suggesting that the Bible endorsed slavery.

To some, the image was racist. But officials with the state chapter of American Atheists, which paid for the message, said it was to protest the state legislature's declaration of 2012 as the “Year of the Bible.”

In Paterson, Qatanani told Silverman that the billboard could serve Islam, by creating opportunities to talk with nonbelievers.

He said that his religion calls on him to share it with others, because it is “the best thing in our life. The gift that we have is religion. I like it to be for everybody, not just me,” he said. “But at the same time, we have to accept each other.”

“So, you know for a fact I’m never going to convert to Islam, never. Can we still be friends?” Silverman asked.

“Absolutely,” Qatanani answered, handing him a copy of the Quran and a pamphlet about Islam. “But I will give you this to convert you. Please, read them and come back.”

The atheist and the Imam laughed and shook hands.

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: N.
March 29, 2012 12:44 PM
I dont think that orthodox religous communities should be allowed such an outrage when someone questions their beliefs.. after all everyone is allowed to question science, right?

by: fy
March 19, 2012 7:35 PM
Atheism will not generate crime.

by: Justin Timberlake
March 15, 2012 12:25 PM
Very bold statement in the conservative America. it is was in southern states it could have been different story.

by: NVO
March 15, 2012 6:37 AM
To espouse atheism, is to say you have have searched the far corners of the universe to prove there is no God, this is humanly IMPOSSIBLE. On the other hand faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ= Romans 10:17. Prepare to meet YOUR God=Amos 4:12 AND THAT INCLUDES YOU SO-CALLED ATHEISTS!

by: Cha Cha Cohen
March 15, 2012 6:12 AM
Atheism only breeds crime!

by: Robert Makoi
March 14, 2012 7:43 PM
To Mr. Nabi (Afghanistan, USA Finland); if there is no quranic support for forcing islam on others, why do muslims kill infidels? Islam in my opinion is NOT a religion of tolerance, ask Salmon Rusdie!

by: Jilly
March 13, 2012 4:07 PM
I think the billboards are GREAT!! It's a shame when theists are able to put up their billboards in any location and it not make the news, but a non-believer has one put up and it's all of a sudden "offensive"....
What a classic, hypocritical statement by theists.....

by: Nabi
March 13, 2012 11:46 AM
i must say i see and agree to both the points from the atheists and from the imam. islam does not force you to come or stay in a religion. there is no quranic support for that and for something so important in human life i would think the quran itself would be clear about it. second the atheists are right to liberate those who really do not believe, in their religion or even atheism but are there cause of 'family' reasons where they really rather be jew, christian, muslim or other.

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